Breaking bad: how entrepreneurs can transform industries that have a poor reputation

Most entrepreneurs would shy away from launching a startup in a market with a bad reputation. However, JBW and Astus have managed to revolutionise the bailiff and media barter industries respectively

Breaking bad: how entrepreneurs can transform industries that have a poor reputation

Few would dispute that becoming an entrepreneur is risky business. The buzz of being one’s own boss and turning an idea into a commercial success is juxtaposed with the very real chance of failure. However, success is arguably more likely for those who enter a market that boasts a large, captive audience; in other words, a market that benefits from popularity and a strong reputation. Whilst competition may be fierce, a fresh brand offering an equally exciting and innovative product will generally go a long way. 

However, what of those industries that aren’t perceived that well by the general public and wider business community? One could reasonably assert that any attempt to set up shop in a so-called ‘dirty’ market is folly of the highest order. Frances Dickens, co-founder and CEO of Astus, the media barter company, admits she had her doubts at the start. “When I look back, I think we must have been absolutely mad,” she says. “There are far easier things to do than try and change an industry like media barter. We were in an industry where big American companies had hundreds of clients and they owed millions of pounds of value to them.” 

For those unaccustomed with the ways of media barter, Dickens provides a concise summary. “Media barter companies enable advertisers to use the value of their goods or services to part-fund media campaigns. Essentially this means they are able to pay for their media campaigns partly in cash and partly in their goods or services – rather than 100% cash. This results in a significant cost benefit to the client and incremental business for media owners.” 

Dickens, along with co-founder Paul Jackson, started Astus in 2003, a time when the media barter industry wasn’t looked upon all that favourably. This, she explains, was a result of events across the pond where media barter revolved around an exchange of ‘trade credits’ which regularly could not be used despite promises to the contrary. The collapse of one of America’s largest barter firms – which left media owners and clients out of pocket to the tune of millions – confirmed the majority of people’s doubts about the industry’s long-term sustainability and viability.

Nevertheless, having spent some time working for one such firm, Dickens and Jackson were convinced that media barter could be done differently, and in a way that brought tangible benefits to clients. They therefore decided to give it a go on these shores. “We just saw how to take this American model and make it work for the UK market,” Dickens explains. “What we did was take it the other way and say ‘let’s get the media space first and then go and find the right person for that media space that the media owner wants’.” Astus also deals in companies’ first-line stock as opposed to its excess or short-dated inventory. This helps add further value to its proposition. 

Media barter is still in its infancy in the UK, but estimates suggest it is currently worth £250-300m, with Astus itself responsible for £200m of business last year. By flipping the traditional business model on its head, Dickens believes she is helping change the face of media barter. “I think we have totally revolutionised the industry,” she proclaims. 

That’s not to say it’s been a walk in the park, though. “We had to get out there and deliver our promises,” Dickens adds. “It is still our mantra today. We had to always make sure that everything that we did was going to work. It was so important to us that we would turn clients away if we weren’t sure we could deliver it.” 

Much like media barter in the US, it’s safe to say that the bailiff industry has traditionally been given a fairly rough ride in the UK. However, JBW – the bailiff and debt collection firm founded by Jamie Waller in 2004 – has slowly but surely been cleaning up the sector over the last ten years.

Waller’s desire to start his own bailiff company was also driven by previous experience of employment in the sector. Prior to JBW, he spent five years working for one of the largest enforcement agencies in the country, eventually becoming its UK operations manager. Waller admits to being “really surprised” at the limited training he was given when he first started the job. “I was given around two to three hours in a classroom and then asked to shadow an existing bailiff for the rest of the day,” he recalls. 

It was also at this point that negative press about the industry cranked up a notch. “The publicity around the way bailiffs acted got completely out of control,” he says. “Newspaper front pages and TV shows were uncovering really bad practice and it was evident to me that it was not isolated – it was quite widespread. I just thought there was a great opportunity to enter the industry and try and smarten it up.”

There were personal motives for Waller too. “I grew up in Bethnal Green,” he says. “My parents were both living in rented accommodation. We lived hand to mouth and our friends and neighbours were on the receiving end of debt and bailiffs for very many years. So I had a personal ambition in that I didn’t want to see people being treated badly just because they owed some money.”

Over the last decade, Waller has dedicated his life to presenting the industry in a more positive light. One of the first things he did at JBW – which has had implications for the whole sector – was to sort out the physical appearance of those who had been getting it in the neck from all quarters. “We implemented a bailiff uniform policy,” says Waller. “I come from a military background so I was adamant that from day one our enforcement agents – as we rebranded them – were going to be in trousers, shirt and tie and look official and smart at all times.” 

The rebranding of bailiffs as enforcement agents has now been followed through as part of new regulations passed by the government last month. Compulsory training and certification has also been introduced in a bid to curb the instances of aggressive behaviour that have tarnished the reputation of the industry. For Waller, this is the culmination of all of his own efforts over the last decade; JBW was itself responsible for developing the industry’s first ever City & Guilds-accredited training course.

It’s not all been squeaky clean for Waller though. A recent Panorama documentary on BBC1 exposed the unsavoury actions of a ‘rogue’ enforcement officer who had somehow found his way onto JBW’s books. Whilst Waller considered the show to be “unfair, unbalanced and disproportionate”, he is the first to admit that there is still a way to go before his mission can reasonably be labelled complete. 

“When you choose to work in an industry like this, this is just another one of the things that you have to deal with,” he says. “One thing I would say is that we have been working on improving this industry for ten years but this is an industry that is hundreds of years old and has been rife with issues from day one. To improve it will take a lot of hard work and a lot of time. I have committed my life to doing that. It’s just evident that it’s going to take a bit more work.” That means doing a lot more than simply firing the individual in question, Waller stresses. “We really have to take a deep dive into our organisation and our processes and consider if this could happen anywhere else.” 

Such blips aside, Waller is a classic example of how an entrepreneur can almost single-handedly transform an industry. And he still finds time to do his bit for charity. Having completed the London to Paris bike ride in 2012, raising £3,000, this year he will cycle from Geneva to Milan as part of the 1moreCycle campaign, which raises money for 1moreChild, a children’s charity in Uganda. Yet another string to Waller’s bow and one that provides a welcome distraction from the day job. “When running any business, you need to find ways to stay sane,” he concludes. “It is very easy to come to the decision to just give up.” 

There’s no danger of that where Waller is concerned though. 

Adam Pescod
Adam Pescod

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